HMS Exeter (CA-1936)


Royal Commonwealth Navy.

The York class cruisers followed the Leopard class. While the Leopard class had been built for a purpose, they were outside what the RN would term general purpose cruisers. The York class were the first RN cruisers built under the new 'no-limit' era. The four ship York class was additional to an order for six 10,000 ton cruisers to match the Mogami and Brooklynn classes. The York class were still not as big as the Admiralty might have liked at 12,500 tons standard displacement but the Royal Navy was still plagued by the need for numbers of cruisers, not just a few large cruisers. The next Lancaster class of heavy cruiser would be the 'heavy' cruiser the Admiralty wanted, to be on a par with the big German and Italian cruisers being built.

At the time of building, the first dual purpose weaponry was being brought into service with the twin 4" (Mk XVI and Mk XX mountings) and twin 4.5" (Mk II, Mk IV and Mk V mountings) weapon systems. The Mk XX was chosen for the new cruiser construction from the York class onward. The Mk XVI being used in destroyers and replacing the single 4" AA fitted to earlier cruisers. The 4.5" guns were used for the Anti-aircraft ships, battleships, aircraft carriers and the rebuilt BB's and BC's. The Mk XX twin 4" turret, was a full power operated turret with a decent 15-16 rounds a minute which when mounted in the lozenge fashion aboard the York class gave a very good AA capability.

The York class, because of their AA ability, spent most of their time in the Mediterranean where their advantage was most useful. Exeter had been damaged in the German Occupation of Norway and the Battle of the Norwegian Sea, requiring extensive repairs. Two ships, Exeter and York, were in the Eastern Mediterranean where the York ran down and sank the Trieste in a three hour chase and engagement. The York received quite heavy damage from the engagement and was wrecked in an attack by Italian explosive motorboats of the 10th Flotilla MAS while anchored for repairs at Suda BayCrete in March 1941. The Yorks wreck was salvaged in 1952 and scrapped in Bari. The Exeter was with the Mediterranean Fleet through till November 1941, when with other elements of the Fleet and reinforcements from the Home Fleet (Force Z), the ship was transferred to the Eastern Fleet to curb Japanese aggression. Pearl Harbour changed that from aggression to total war.

The Exeter was initially used to cover troop convoys from India to Malaya and Australia to Singapore. The sinking of Force Z and the creation of the ABDA Force kept the Exeter very busy. The Battle of the Java Sea left the Exeter damaged beyond what could be fixed with local facilities. Exeter was ordered to an Australis port for a major repair and overhaul. The Exeter's draught was too deep for the ship to use the passages and straits to the East, so Exeter was to transit the Sunda Strait. The Exeter never made it that far, proceeding along the coast of Java at 20 knots, the Exeter and its two escorting destroyers were intercepted by a Japanese force of four cruisers (2 heavy and 2 light) and half a dozen destroyers. The Exeter was firing well, at the Japanese command flagship, when it was hit by a torpedo which knocked out all the power to the ship. While Exeter continued to fight in manual control, without its electronic aids it was just overpowered by the superior Japanese forces. Two more torpedo hits (3 hits out of 20 fired) finished the ship with Exeter slowly capsizing. The Japanese rescued 650 of Exeter's crew with 150 dying in captivity. Both escorts were also sunk.

Northumberland was with the Home Fleet from 1939 to 1942, taking part in all the major actions, from chasing the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, to the Norwegian Campaign, Denmark Strait and the first Russian convoys. With the transfer of the Exeter and the loss of the York, the Northumberland was transferred to Force H. The Northumberland then took part in the relief convoys to Malta, culminating in the huge Pedestal Convoy in August 1942. The Northumberland then took part in the Torch Landings in November 1942 and spent its time providing gun support to the troops and escorting convoys during the retaking of North Africa and the first steps of retaking Europe, with the Italians surrendering in September 1943. It was during the Anzio landings that the Northumberland was hit with a radio controlled Fritz X bomb and crippled with the forward turrets and bridge area seriously warped from the explosion. The Northumberland was sent back to Belfast for repair. A full survey of the ship showed that the damage was much more significant than first thought and Northumberland was written off as a constructive loss. The hull was used as an accommodation ship and stripped of armament which was used to repair and refit other ships. The hull was scrapped in 1946.

HMS Shropshire was the last of the quartet to be completed in late 1937 and went to the plum posting of the Mediterranean Fleet at Malta. Two years there and the Shropshire was posted to the other great cruiser posting, the Far East Fleet based at Hong Kong with the 5th Cruiser Squadron. The Shropshire was there at the outbreak of war and was ordered to assist the Australis Navy in escorting the early troop convoys. One convoy escort job took the Shropshire to Simonstown where it joined other RN units for the retaking of the Falkand Islands. The Shropshire was in command of the escorts assigned to the Golden Hind. The Shropshire duly followed the Golden Hind around, shot at some aircraft, shot at some bits of dirt, but in reality did very little except be there. For the next two years the Shropshire commanded the escort group for the Golden Hind. The Shropshire was transferred to the Home Fleet when Golden Hind was undergoing repairs and a major refit to bring it up to date. The Shropshire joined the Arctic Fleet operating out of Iceland covering convoys to Russia. The ship was present in many of the Arctic battles but never seemed to be at the sharp end, always tied to some battleship or aircraft carrier as escort leader. A Rear Admiral had been aboard Shropshire as the Escort Commander since 1939, the Rear Admiral might have been changed but the Shropshires duties had not. 1944 and the Shropshire joined the fire support group for the D-Day landings. The Shropshire followed the army along the coast and was eventually one of the fleet that penetrated into the Baltic in 1945. By the end of 1946 the Shropshire had been relegated to the Reserve Fleet. Some thought was given during the 1950's to converting the ship to an experimental 'missile cruiser' but the funds were never made available. From 1946 to 1950 the Shropshire had a period of reactivation as a Fleet training ship. The end came in 1954 when the Shropshire was struck from the service list and sold for scrap.

Displacement 12,700 tons standard, 15,800 tons full load
Length 614 ft
Breadth 68 ft
Draught 21 ft
Machinery 4 shaft steam turbines, 82,500shp
Speed 32 knots
Range 8000 miles at 15 knots
Armour 5" side, 2" deck
Armament 9 x 8" (3x3)
12 x 4" (6x2)
16 x 2pd (4x4)
16 x 20mm (8x2)
Aircraft 3
Torpedoes 6 x 21" (2x3)
Complement 825
Notes HMS York (1936) sunk at Suda Bay 1941
HMS Exeter (1936) sunk in the Java sea 1942
HMS Northumberland (1937) constructive loss 1943, scrapped 1946
HMS Shropshire (1937) scrapped 1954

The twin 20mm and quad 2 pounder guns made up the light AA guns fitted to the ships from 1940-41.


Royal Commonwealth Navy.